Such is the challenge faced by Suzanne Clark, who on Thursday became chief executive officer of the Chamber, the most powerful trade association in town, but one that finds itself navigating a complicated new political reality. The Chamber, which had become reflexively pro-Republican in recent years, took the remarkable step of backing an unusually large cadre of House Democrats, infuriating its traditional GOP allies and some local chapters.
But, as the union vote illustrates, trying to be more bipartisan in an increasingly polarized Washington is no easy feat. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher famously said that standing in the middle of the road is dangerous because you get hit by cars going both directions.
Clark’s new job will require her to play the political equivalent of the Frogger arcade game, racing back and forth across the road to shore up frayed relationships on the right and left — all while advancing a corporatist agenda that has lost favor with elements of both parties. The twin realities confronting the Chamber are that congressional Democrats have become more liberal even as their Republican counterparts are becoming Trumpier, more populist and protectionist. This is far from an ideal mix for a group that favors free trade and open borders.
Clark, 53, is the first woman to run the Chamber since its formation in 1912. She replaces Thomas Donohue, 83, who led the group for 24 years. She has been his No. 2 and heir apparent. She was the Chamber’s chief operating officer but left to become president of the National Journal Group and run a research group before returning in 2014.
In her first interview as CEO, Clark put those Democrats who backed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act on notice that they should not count on Chamber support again in 2022. The measure would represent the biggest expansion of union power since the New Deal, preempting right-to-work laws in 27 states and extending federal labor protections to gig economy workers. Clark vowed to “use every weapon in our arsenal” to kill the bill, which has little prospect of success in the Senate so long as the filibuster remains in place.
The Chamber had chilly relations with Trump but could celebrate his corporate tax cuts, deregulation and the confirmation of hundreds of conservative federal judges. That balancing act becomes even trickier with Democrats narrowly in control of both chambers, but Clark sees opportunities to work with President Biden to pass an infrastructure bill, reform the immigration system and roll back Trump’s tariffs. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo spoke to the Chamber’s board on Thursday.
Extending olive branches, the Chamber endorsed Neera Tanden to become director of the Office of Management and Budget and Gary Gensler to become chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Tanden’s nomination failed when not a single Republican senator endorsed her, and many conservatives complain that Gensler was hostile to corporate interests when he chaired the Commodity Futures Trading Commission during the Obama administration.
The Chamber’s moves have alienated GOP congressional leaders. One longtime Republican operative said Tanden’s failure in the Senate and the unionization act’s passage in the House show “the Chamber doesn’t have the capability of changing a single vote in Congress.” A national poll conducted last week by former Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio found that just 29 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of the U.S. Chamber, 30 percent have an unfavorable view and 41 percent have no opinion.
“Now they’re on an island, and they’re kind of alone,” said a former Chamber executive, who sees the decision to separate from the GOP as political malpractice. “Republicans have had enough of them, and Democrats don’t trust them.”
Indeed, while cementing relations with the new administration, the Chamber has been trying to mollify Republicans. After the bloodshed of Jan. 6, the Chamber announced that some Republicans would never again receive its support. The group clarified last week that it will not permanently pull support from all 147 GOP lawmakers who voted against certifying Biden’s electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania, only an unspecified number who actively peddled conspiracy theories.
“I don’t want to in any way walk back from the fact that there were people who lost our support on that day,” Clark said during the interview. Still, she added, “I will say that the totality of people’s actions matters. It’s not one day. It’s not one moment in time.”
The Chamber’s uncoupling from the GOP has come against the backdrop of growing turmoil inside the National Rifle Association and Southern Baptist Convention, along with the death of megadonor Sheldon Adelson and the decision by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch to pull back from partisan politics. Taken together, these developments eroded what had been the unofficial cornerstones of the party’s coalition.
Just as Republicans took the Chamber’s loyalty for granted, the Chamber wrongly assumed the GOP would always support its foundational agenda. But the major source of energy in both parties right now emanates from restless populist wings. Clark’s success in her new job hinges on convincing conservatives in the grips of anti-establishment fervor that what is good for business is generally good for America. Barring that, she must persuade some number of Democrats that they should side with the professional class — a growing share of their coalition — over organized labor. These are rough roads to cross, but if she cannot, the Chamber will find itself a lobby without a party.